“The strength of montage resides in this, that it includes in the creative process the emotions and mind of the spectator. The spectator is compelled to proceed along that selfsame path that the author traveled in creating the image. The spectator not only sees the represented elements of the finished work, but also experiences the dynamic process of the emergence and assembly of the image just as it was experienced by the author. And this is, obviously, the highest possible degree of approximation to transmitting visually the author’s perceptions and intention in all their fullness, to transmitting them with ‘that strength of physical palpability’ with which they arose before the author in his creative work and his creative vision.
Relevant to this part of the discussion is Marx’s definition of the course of genuine investigation: ‘Not only the results, but the road to it also is a part of truth. The investigation of truth must itself be true, true investigation is unfolded truth, the disjuncted members of which unite in the result.’ The strength of the method resides also in the circumstance that the spectator is drawn into a creative act in which his individuality is not subordinated to the author’s individuality, but is opened up throughout the process of fusion with the author’s intention...”
Sergei M. Eisenstein1
“Emile de Antonio has said that what interests him most about the films he has made is their structure. And, without doubt, such works as Point of Order (1963), In the Year of the Pig (1969), and Millhouse: A White Comedy (1971) are among the most carefully constructed of American documentary films. With special attention to the capacity of edited images to be imbued with newfound, frequently ironic layers of meaning, de Antonio has undertaken a proiect of historiography through a two-stroke process that places in tension ‘present tense’ interview material and archival footage scavenged from diverse sources. Visual documents from past and present are thus allowed to interrogate one another, the recycled ‘action footage’ (in In the Year of the Pig, images of the French occupation as well as battle footage from American and Vietnamese sources) offering contrast with the reflections and analyses of interview subjects. The sound track offers yet another interpretive layer through its counterpointing of image and unexpected sound elements. One striking example of this strategy in In the Year of the Pig occurs at the close of the sequence chronicling the defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu; ‘La Marsaillaise’ is plaintively rendered by a Vietnamese stringed instrument over images of the triumphant Viet Minh. Thomas Waugh has drawn attention to de Antonio’s unique working methods in his excellent essay, ‘Beyond Vérité: Emile de Antonio and the New Documentary of the Seventies,’ labeling the hybrid result ‘collage essay’ for its coupling of a collagist aesthetic (‘I do everything at once... so the process was always one of collage’) with the development of a didactic line, uninterrupted by external narration.”
Terry de Antonio: Pauline Kael called Ho Chi Minh the hero of In The Year of the Pig. What did you find admirable about him?
Emile de Antonio: Well, I am a romantic. And my work, though hard and documentary, is essentially romantic work because beneath it there lies a hope that the world can change. I agree with a man I came to love in the making of the film – Paul Mus, a professor of Buddhism at Yale and the Collège de France – who said that when the history of the twentieth century is written Ho Chi Minh will be known as its greatest patriot and perhaps its greatest man. Ho Chi Minh was able to do what many idealist patriots dream of – to liberate his country and there is no higher ideal than that. Particularly the liberation of one’s country from a foreign oppressor, a colonial oppressor, a racist colonial oppressor. He led the first successful Asian revolution – before China – against the white imperialists.
In addition, his life was so romantic. Shipping out as a cabin boy at the age of seventeen before he ever heard the words Karl Marx or socialism. His anger and rebellion and revolt against the French. The fact that he wrote poetry. The fact that he was sentenced to death by the French authorities and in prison he wrote poetry. That against all odds he won. And, finally, since one of my failings is a concern with grace and style, that he had such exquisite grace and style. I love the scenes of him – given to me by the Democratic Republic of Vietnam – in In the Year of the Pig when he’s with a group of young people and children and he raises his hand to make them sit down. The simplicity of his life was, for a Marxist, a most aristocratic kind of simplicity: the typewriter, the blanket, the few books, all this appeals to me. His was a life not only of devotion to his people, but a life in which all those sorts of boring possessions were stripped away.
Do you have a philosophy of life?
I can’t answer a question like that. I don’t know what that means.
What else do you like to do besides work and drink?
I’d like to say something more about film. The real problem in any form of expression is when the form becomes so polished and so gilded as to be devoid of content. It is always those films which I find most shallow and least interesting. Take a cult figure. The early Hitchcock – before World War II – is a brilliant filmmaker, technically and innovatively brilliant. The sound cuts in The 39 Steps, the moving train device of The Lady Vanishes, both of those are brilliant. But what happens to Hitchcock is that he masters the form, and Hitchcock is like Simenon novels: they’re perfect and very bad. It’s not just Psycho – Strangers on a Train may be an exception but most of the Hitchcock films that are the object of cult worship are bad because they are so well made. And that’s not a paradox. In the dichotomy between form and content, I suspect that work of any kind, unless it has content – by content I don’t mean political slogans – but unless it has some subject, it tends to become evanescent or trivial.
What American movies do you like?
I like the obvious things. The trouble with John Ford’s movies is that all the good things are exactly alike. My Darling Clementine and Stagecoach. They’re both the same movie. And so I like one of them. There’s no development in a person like Ford. He gets old, but his movies don’t develop. There’s a naive, primitive, reactionary view of life that is the same throughout all his films. That’s one of the troubles with being an American. Auden once said that American writers usually have one book in them. We don’t have enough of a cultural reservoir to fall back on. And this is what happened to Orson Welles. He made a movie. He made a movie whose failing is that it’s synthetic and whose virtue is that it’s a brilliant synthesis. But he never developed. Not one movie he made after that was ever as good as the first one. Also, of course, Welles suffers from the fact that he’s an actor, so he has a large, inflatable ego to pump up, and the films in which he acts are in most cases deplorable – like Mr. Arkadin. Or Lear. (Welles’s video production of King Lear was unfinished at the time of his death in 1985. De Antonio is conflating Welles’s other Shakespearean roles in Macbeth (1948), Othello (1952), and Falstaff aka Chimes at Midnight (1966).]
Where do you want to go with documentary?
I don’t know. I’m at a critical point. I work very slowly. This is why Sartre’s book The Words means so much to me. He speaks of sweat, nothing comes easy. Victor Alfieri, the Italian poet, had literally to be chained to his desk in order to work. I have that kind of problem. I love my work and I love working, but it doesn’t come easily. People who know me socially see someone who can speak quickly. And I tend to have a quickness in perception. But the actual work – the people who work with me are oddly amused by it – I have solved some of the problems I deal with in film through what I call brutality, which is just looking at stuff over and over and over until you’re exhausted.
This is the way In the Year of the Pig was ended. I had an ending, and we were ready to go to mix, and the ending was all right. But it was wrong. It would have worked, but failed to make the point I wanted. The editor and I stayed so late, she cried. It was a miniature nervous breakdown, but then I had what I wanted. My work has to do with sweat.
Would you consider making a film that wasn’t a documentary?
Each time I think of doing fiction, I get excited by a documentary idea. I’ve always responded to dares and challenges. Even as a boy, “I dare you” is the one thing that could get me involved in any form of insanity. My drinking a quart of whiskey for Andy Warhol a quart in twenty minutes, on camera – was exactly that kind of thing. So I like the idea of making a fiction film. I’m over fifty. Nobody has taken up a whole new kind of film at that age. But the problems of fiction up until now have been less interesting to me. It’s hard to talk about what you’re going to do unless you’re talking about product: how many sausages you’re going to produce, or how many cars, or how many films to fill a theater.
Do you care about an audience?
You have to remember that my films are made from a minority point of view, independently, without corporate backing, each one as an individual enterprise. I never think of a distribution contract until the film is finished. On the other hand, anybody who makes films makes them to be seen. But while I’m making them I don’t think about the audience. I have to like what I’m doing.
Terry de Antonio in conversation with Emile de Antonio3
- 1. Sergei M. Eisenstein, The Film Sense (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1942), 28.
- 2. Michael Renov, ‘In the Year of the Pig: The Appeal to Rationality’ in Linda Dittmar and Gene Michaud, eds., From Hanoi to Hollywood: The Vietnam War in American Film (New Brunswick and London: Rutgers University Press, 2000), 261-263.
- 3. ‘An In-Depth Interview with Emile de Antonio (1972)’ in Douglas Kellner and Dan Streible, eds., Emile de Antonio. A Reader (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 87-96.